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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Collaboration or growth

Who thinks they are in conflict?

Through the letterbox drops a begging letter from the head of a university. Fair enough. The needy beg. The first sentence reads as follows.

Today, the defining struggle in the world is between relentless growth and the potential for collaboration.

This is very odd in all sorts of ways.

First, the implication seems to be that `relentless' growth might be a bad thing. Tell that to those suffering as a result of the recession - the very opposite of growth - or those living in poverty who would - in some cases will - die for lack of relentless growth.

Second, in what sense is there a `struggle', let alone a defining one? Does he mean that those who espouse growth are fighting those who espouse collaboration (I suspect he means co-operation, a word with less sinister connotations)? I can't think which conflict this applies to.

But third, the most remarkable thing about this sentence is the implication that growth comes at the expense of collaboration. I find it astounding that anybody can really think this after Montesquieu and Condorcet, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Friedrich Hayek and Paul Romer, after tit-for-tat and gains from trade, after South Korea and North Korea.

Wherever the ways of man are gentle, there is commerce,

said Montesquieu,

and wherever there is commerce there the ways of men are gentle.

Surely the way growth happens is by people exchanging and specialising, by people bringing together and combining their ideas into technologies and practices that supply each other's needs. The way to grow is to make or do something that somebody else needs or wants. In a word, by collaborating.

Let us charitably assume that the university head has signed a letter written by some fund-raising consultant (which is why I am not naming him). Said consultant no doubt thinks that the sentence expresses an unexceptional and obvious truth. After all he is likely to have heard that economic growth comes at the expense of collaboration from almost every parent, priest, paper and professor he encounters. It is indeed conventional wisdom.

Depressing to find it parroted by the head of a university, though.